Below was the prepared text for today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York. I expanded upon it to include how the “American Dream” is built upon the belief that we have a God-given right to the “pursuit of happiness,” to note the difference between the Greek LXX translation and the Hebrew Scriptures in the Proverbs 11:31 verse quoted by Peter and the implications of this for our message, later I brought in James 4:3-4 as support, and I changed the ending from a prayer-wish or charge to return full circle to themes in the intro and add a word of encouragement. The children’s message, which is included here as a separate audio file, expands upon the thought about Esau wanting stew (you can’t hear the kids, but I repeat their answers for you).
I spoke last Sunday about how studies of youth and religion show that young people believe that God is only needed when we have a problem that needs fixing and otherwise does not need to be involved in the day to day details of our lives. With such a belief about God it is hardly surprising that teens and young adults think that going to church is a good thing like eating vegetables – it is good to do but it is not something we feel the need to do every week. Nor is it surprising that we tend to think that the goal of our lives is to be happy and well-adjusted and this is what God wants for us. In other words, we know from this research that most young people, especially those in Catholic and Protestant families, aim for a life of comfort, ease, and safety. In fact, we think that this is what our religion should give us. So when suffering happens to others we guess they don’t have enough faith or they have some hidden and unconfessed sin. Yet most teens and young adults walk away from “faith” when suffering happens to them because that faith didn’t mean as much to them as their happiness and success. When seeking a life of happiness we think with our stomach or our appetites like Esau. It has been said that some go to church today for the same reasons that people once went to diners – we want someone to serve us who knows our name and the filling stew we eat reminds us of home and makes us feel loved. But suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. We are on a journey as Christians in this foreign land as we make our way to the better country that will be revealed from heaven when Jesus returns. It is not a safe journey, nor will the walk be comfortable or easy. Consider these examples of this theme:
1 Peter 4:12-19
- A faith that matters endures in the face of suffering knowing that it is God’s will for us to share Christ’s sufferings and to suffer for Christ is to be blessed.
- Most young people believe that their goal in life is to find a good spouse and job, buy a nice home, and live happily ever after. In other words, the goal is to feel happy and good about yourself. To the extent that they embrace a religion it is so that they might be rich, full, happy, and accepted. The last thing they would think is that to suffer is to be blessed. Yet Jesus says, woe to you who are rich, full now, laugh now, and when all people speak well of you for so their fathers did to the false prophets. Jesus speaks of a great reversal when those who were rich will be poor, those who are full now will be hungry, and those who laugh now will mourn and weep. The reason for this great reversal is that those who do not trust in Jesus will be excluded from the new heavens and earth. Like the false prophets you can be included, accepted, and even loved by many people in this life, but have no place in the blessings to come. Thus the goal of someone with a faith that really matters cannot be happiness and success in this life. Our goal in this life as Christians cannot be to be happy and comfy nor should we desire above all to live the American dream. After all, if being happy and feeling good is the goal then there is little to stop you from seeking to be rich, full, laughing, and flattered at the expense of those who believe in Jesus. If you want to succeed you might turn down the Christian for the job or the promotion because they will not work on Sunday and you might embrace what the world says about marriage or life so that others speak well of you.
- On the other hand, suffering is a normal part of the Christian experience for we are dedicated to the work of the kingdom no matter what consequences might follow. Such suffering is not a surprise to God, but as these passages are saying it is God’s will for us who believe to share Christ’s sufferings and be hated and excluded on His account. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered in concentration camps awaiting his execution by the Nazis, said that those “sufferings which appear so hard and objectionable to us in our lives are in reality full of the greatest treasures a Christian can find.” He says, “they are like the shell in which a pearl rests.” The pearl being hope – for suffering produces hope. This hope is not wishful thinking but a certain hope. Jesus tells us to rejoice and even leap for joy when we suffer for His sake for your reward is great in heaven. So a faith you can have now that stores up treasure in heaven is a faith that endures suffering for Christ rather than seeking comfort, ease, safety, and happiness in this life. (Such a faith in Christ matters more to the Christian than personal happiness because sharing in Christ’s sufferings is God’s will for us and that suffering is a blessing. But we can go further…)
- A faith that matters more than happiness loves God for His sake.
- A faith that is less important to us than being happy and feeling good will look to God for what He can give. This can be any number of things – you might want better things or even to become a better person. So you look to God for a promotion, for money, for a better car or house, for whatever it is that you think will bring more happiness. Or you may even look to God to build your self-esteem, or to bring about change in your habits, or whatever else it is that will make you feel good. Asking for such things is not always wrong, but if your faith is less important than being happy and feeling good then these requests are made to God for the wrong motives. So a faith that is less important to us than being happy or feeling good will look to God for what He can give.
- But a faith that matters more than happiness and feeling good does not love God because you want better things or even to become a better person. The one with such a faith strives to glorify God and seek their satisfaction in Him. In other words, the one whose faith matters more than happiness and feeling good will seek to find their happiness in God rather than in created things including even within themselves. Yes by faith God has come to live within their heart and by faith they have every blessing in the heavenly places. But their faith matters more than personal happiness for they have found their happiness in God instead of seeking God for what He can do for them. So if faith is more important to us than being happy or feeling good then we will not look to God for what He can give us but looking to God we want to give everything for Him. Suffering is then an opportunity to give up personal happiness and feeling good about ourselves to glorify God in the name of Christ. The one with such a faith is willing to suffer for doing good for the one with such a faith loves God because He is God and not because God can make him happy. Thus my prayer is that your faith in Christ matters more than your happiness. Amen.